Denita's Choice

What would you do? That is today's question.

The New York Times has a huge story on a for-profit company called K12.

A look at the company’s operations, based on interviews and a review of school finances and performance records, raises serious questions about whether K12 schools — and full-time online schools in general — benefit children or taxpayers, particularly as state education budgets are being slashed.

What's the reporter's lede?

Nearly 60 percent of its students are behind grade level in math. Nearly 50 percent trail in reading. A third do not graduate on time. And hundreds of children, from kindergartners to seniors, withdraw within months after they enroll.

By Wall Street standards, though, Agora is a remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., the publicly traded company that manages the school.

Let's dig deeper.

The article's lead character is Denita Alhammadi. She's a Memphis parent of 2 kids. She chooses a K12 online school. Then she spends up to 6 hours per day at home supervising her kids while they learn online.

Let's examine things from her point of view. Why did she choose this school?

Like many parents who move their children to online schools, she had worried about violence.

The Times article does not further explore Mrs. Alhammadi's choice. The reporter continues:

But no single reason leads families to make the switch. The students are a broadly diverse group, ranging from entertainers and athletes in training to children with cancer, seizure disorders, peanut allergies or behavioral problems. Some have been expelled from regular schools. In many cases their parents are simply dissatisfied.

Kathryn Ubiarco, whose son and daughter are also enrolled in Tennessee, said that her daughter’s school in Memphis had not been teaching her to read. “There’s no way to come up with the B that she got in reading last year,” Ms. Ubiarco said. “The child can’t read.” She believes the virtual school curriculum is more rigorous.

Let's go back to "worried about violence." I googled Denita Alhammadi. Turns out she was featured in a Memphis newspaper story back in July.

"The reason I pulled him of Memphis City Schools is because he had to deal with bullying," Alhammadi said after an informational meeting K12 hosted last week in Memphis.


For Alhammadi, the last straw was when Memphis school leaders classified her son "ADHD," attention deficit hyperactive disorder.

"My son is an advanced learner. Of course he's going to be bored if he finishes way ahead of everyone else and has to just sit there."

So now we have 3 reasons. ADHD diagnosis - which are often combined with recommendations of medication. Bullying - being on the receiving end of violence. And I would add: fear that her son would join a gang - often the logical response to bullying.

The Times article on K12 examines the kid and parent experience in the online school. That is good journalism.

But this is a huge article. Why not examine Denita's alternative?

Her son is 13. What is the nearby high school?

Through some internet sleuthing, I came up with a home address. There are two high schools within 3 miles: Craigmont and Raleigh Egypt. Both are on the state's "High Priority" list because of persistently low academic performance.

Here's a recent article. The headline is: "Gunshots force suspension of football game at Raleigh-Egypt."

Shortly after 8 p.m., shots rang out and players from both teams were reportedly told to "get down." The game was suspended with 4:38 left in the first half and Craigmont leading 34-28.

Details on the exact location of the gunshots were unavailable.

Let's skip the obvious: they need some new defensive schemes. 34-28 in the first half?

Snark aside, shootings can happen anywhere. Let's not read too much into one incident.

Oh wait. A different shooting happened 2 weeks before that?

On Oct. 7, police arrested three teenagers at Raleigh-Egypt who were firing shots from a vehicle after a football game. Two 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old were arrested after officers recovered two guns from a Nissan SUV the teens were occupying.

Well, Mrs. Alhammadi could require her son to stay away from football games.

Of course there's this recent story:

Action News 5's Nick Paranjape vistied a wooded area, about 3-to-5 acres of land, next to Raleigh-Egypt High School; an area commonly known as "the cut".

Many students use the path as a "shortcut" to get home. Others use it for something else.

Justin Hunter, a senior at Raleigh-Egypt High, walks through "the cut".

"I kept hearing the cut, the cut, the cut. I said wait, wait, what is the cut," says Memphis City School Board member, Stephanie Gatewood.

Gatewood eventually found out what it was and what happens there.

"Gang initiation, smoking, sexual intercourse. Pretty much anything you can think of that's not positive," says Hunter.

What about during class? This was uploaded by a Raleigh-Egypt student in 2010.

That's what she is avoiding for her 2 children.

What is she embracing in terms of the online school? The Times paints a portrait.

Ms. Alhammadi, who runs her tiny school like boot camp, has hidden Romeo’s computer login so she has control. Otherwise, he would skip the lessons and move straight to the online test — a habit cited by critics of K12’s curriculum.

As two frisky cats run back and forth, Romeo raises his hand — a formality required by his mother — and asks to leave the room. He returns with headphones and plugs them into his computer. As he lip syncs Rihanna’s hit “Umbrella” it becomes clear that Romeo is not listening to any lesson. “I concentrate better with my music,” he says.

On his computer screen, a series of multiple choice questions ask him to select the correct answer to algebraic equations using negative numbers. Romeo scores a 67 percent.

When Romeo moves to science, he misses a question on the definition of matter.

“Romeo, Romeo,” his mother says. “If you had been studying appropriately, you would have found out that there are lots of properties of matter. And you got to take all those elements to build matter. Because elements are gas, solids, liquid.”

Romeo is scheduled for a virtual session with his assigned teacher and class at 1 p.m. But when he signs into the class, no one else is there. “Wow, the room is completely empty,” he says. He types, “Anyone here?” There is no response.

* * * *

K12 has a market cap of $1 billion. And a P/E of 66. That means the market thinks it has huge growth potential. (Mature companies, like General Electric, tend to have P/E in the 15 range).

Do I hope some other company comes along and creates a much better product for Romeo? Yes.

Do I hope that new competition, whether for profit or nonprofit, topples K12? Yes.

Is it annoying that some guys are getting rich off this? Yes.

Is it ridonkulous that the largest shareholder is Michael Milken, the junk bond king from the 1980s? Yes.

With all that said, will more parents choose online charters (combined with home schooling) in the coming years, and will taxpayers underwrite more of these schools? Yes.

Glenn Reynolds writes:

We're also starting to see the deflation of what might be called a "lower education bubble" - that is, the constant flow of more and more money into K-12 education without any significant degree of buyer resistance, in spite of the often low quality of the education it purchases...

Perhaps there's still a role for teaching children to sit up straight and form lines, but perhaps not. Certainly the rapidly increasing willingness of parents to try homeschooling, charter schools, online school, and other alternative approaches suggests that a lot of people are unhappy with the status quo.

Mrs. Alhammadi has has an unappealing choice. Traditional high-poverty school versus home-schooling her kid with the help of a weak online product. Is she better off having this choice, versus no choice? Yes.

And my final question:

What would you do in her situation?